With less than two years before the Dec. 31, 2014, end of the Commonwealth-only worker program, CNMI Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) has asked acting U.S. Labor Secretary Seth D. Harris not only to extend the transition period by five years or up to 2019 but also to make a decision “ideally within the next six months” from February-or by August.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos also supports a five-year extension of the transition period and will be communicating his position soon, press secretary Angel Demapan said yesterday.
“[Inos] also expects.the U.S. Labor secretary [to] address the issue in consultation with the governor. Nonetheless, Governor Inos is supporting the need for a five-year extension,” Demapan told Saipan Tribune.
The five-year extension request is one of the issues that Sablan asked Inos and other CNMI officials for support. Extending the program allows the CNMI continued access to more than 12,000 foreign workers.
Meantime, the Obama administration affirmed last week its commitment to retain the position of assistant secretary for insular areas in the U.S. Department of the Interior that Sablan said gives “enhanced status to island issues.” Anthony “Tony” Babauta recently vacated the post.
The earlier, the better
Sablan said that most CNMI employers will be considering future employment needs again in later 2013 and early 2014 so it is “critical that employers know prior to the onset of this timeframe whether the transition period will be extended.”
Skilled and professional foreign workers-mostly from the Philippines and China-account for some 54 percent of the workforce in the CNMI.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in 2012 that “the CNMI economy remains dependent on foreign workers.”
“Given the consultative process that the Department of Labor is mandated to engage in and the need for the department to gather and analyze data prior to making its determination, it is imperative that this process begin now, so that it can be completed later this year, when the cycle of business decisions regarding CW applications commences,” Sablan said in a Feb. 14 letter to Harris, a copy of which was released over the weekend.
As of yesterday, the Inos administration and other CNMI entities have yet to formally request the U.S. Labor secretary to extend the transition period, which is set to expire in less than two years.
Sablan said in his February letter that deciding on the proposed extension request within the next six months-or by August-will “alleviate ongoing uncertainties about the future availability of labor and the composition of the islands' population, which are detrimental to individuals, businesses, and investment” in the CNMI.
The delegate also said that a grant of a five-year extension would not subvert the goal of U.S. Public Law 110-229 to replace foreign workers in the CNMI with U.S. workers because employers would continue to be required to demonstrate the unavailability of qualified U.S. worker before they are allowed to hire a foreign worker.
He said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would also continue to monitor the overall need for available CW permits.
“An extension of the transition period would simply better fit the phase-out of foreign workers to an economically realistic timeframe, an adjustment that the law anticipated could be necessary,” Sablan added.
Impact on recovery
The delegate also said that uncertainty over the availability of labor beyond 2014 “could impede any recovery.”
Tourism arrivals have seen increases. Hotel occupancy rates reached 91 percent in January 2013, the highest since 1997. Room rates have also returned to 1998 levels.
USCIS also recently approved the first EB-5 Regional Center, “another positive sign,” Sablan added.
Lawmakers and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce have also backed extending the transition period beyond 2014.
The government and private sector said that losing access to skilled foreign workers will harm the tourism-based economy in a major way. These nonresident workers, many of them working legally in the CNMI for more than five years, include nurses, accountants, engineers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, house workers, and hotel and restaurant employees.
Sablan's request for the CW program to be extended also comes at a time when the Obama administration and U.S. Congress members are working on a national immigration reform that includes giving pathway to citizenship to over 11 million undocumented aliens in the U.S. mainland.
Sablan is working with his colleagues in Congress and the Obama administration to ensure that the CNMI is included in any national immigration reform legislation.
He is also currently working on a broader version of his H.R. 1466 to include other groups of long-term nonresidents that will be eligible for a CNMI resident status, or pathway to U.S. citizenship.
Obama on Interior post
During last week's Plenary Session of the Interagency Group on Insular Affairs, the Obama administration affirmed its commitment to retain the position of Interior assistant secretary for insular area.
In 2009, the president elevated the head of the Office of Insular Areas to the rank of assistant secretary, giving enhanced status to island issues.
Sablan initiated a letter from congressional delegates to Obama last month, urging retention of the assistant secretary position, so last week's positive response was “welcome news,” the delegate said.
“The President also began his administration with a renewal of the IGIA itself. This provides a forum for raising issues of concern to island jurisdictions with the White House directly. Among the issues I identified for action is for the Department of Labor to make an early determination of an extension of the immigration transition period for another five years beyond 2014, when the transition is now scheduled to end,” Sablan added.